With the explosion of Occupy Wall Street protests, many people have begun to wonder whether this movement will have a lasting impact, and, if so, what political changes it might ultimately bring about. While it’s far too early to answer these questions, I think it is a good issue to start considering in a general way.
To this end, I want to devote a couple of posts to the topic.
Before talking about Occupy Wall Street, we can look at the impact of some other recent mass mobilizations. In this first post, I want to examine two of them: the global justice movement of the Seattle period, and the immigrant rights protests of 2006. Some patterns emerge in these cases that are useful in analyzing the current situation.
In a second post, I will consider some preliminary ways in which the #Occupy movement has already started to influence U.S. politics, as well as some ways it might have further impact as it continues to unfold.
Countering the Critics
It’s easy to be a naysayer about the impact of social movements. You don’t have to have a particularly informed opinion—or any evidence at all, really—to say, “that protest didn’t accomplish anything.” Since the media tends not to cover ongoing social movement work, only capturing the most dramatic and high-profile actions, there’s always a drop-off in press coverage sooner or later. And the decreased attention leads many to conclude that the movement in question just went away and failed to have any importance. For all except those who make it their business to follow the long-term grind of activist campaigning, the out-with-a-whimper narrative usually rings true.
If someone does point to a change created by a social movement, detractors will never fail in saying that such change was inevitable. It would have happened anyway, they contend, even if everyone had stayed home and done nothing. Again, it takes no evidence to make such a claim, yet the argument enjoys instant credibility because it taps into widespread feelings of powerlessness and apathy.
In contrast, demonstrating the impact of social movements takes long-term interest, sustained observation of changing political circumstances, and attention to things like polling data and the dynamics of organizational growth or decline. Since change is rarely as instant or revolutionary as advocates would like, you have to deal in the messy gradations of policy compromise, symbolic victory, and slowly shifting social attitudes.
The difficulty is compounded with momentum-driven mass mobilizations—think the global justice movement of the Seattle era, the huge immigrant rights protests of 2006, or the current #Occupy movement—whose success cannot be judged by the progress of a single piece of legislation. In each case, you can work to uncover how the movements have influenced political outcomes in a variety of important ways. But it’s far easier just to be smug.
The Global Justice Legacy
I have written at length about the impact of the global justice movement, which burst into the U.S. spotlight with the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meetings in Seattle. There are plenty who believe that globalization protests did nothing, such as a Seattle Weekly critic who dismissively wrote in 2008, “Remind me again what those demonstrations against the WTO actually accomplished.”
Of course, the sarcastic writer has no interest in actually examining the question of impact. But if he did, he might start by taking a look at the total collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)—once considered a safe bet by most respectable trade analysts—the passage of landmark agreements on international debt relief, and a historic unraveling of the power of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Social movement activism wasn’t the only factor in making any of these things happen, but it was certainly a significant one.
Those protesting corporate globalization in many other countries—most notably throughout Latin America—succeeded in ousting governments supportive of the neoliberal “Washington Consensus” and electing more progressive leaders. We’ve even seen a shift domestically. In the decade following the Seattle protests, “free trade” stances became a major political liability in U.S. politics, as a raft of candidates were elected vowing instead to pursue a “fair trade” agenda respectful of workers’ rights and environmental protections.
In short, we’ve seen policy changes involving billions of dollars in resources and noteworthy electoral fallout, as well as a very substantial shift in the tenor of the development debate. All of these developments are items that could be examined in more detail. Almost uniformly, they are also things that social movement critics have spent zero time or energy looking into.
Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote
The immigrant rights protests of 2006 provide a second example of a mass mobilization often dismissed as a flash in the pan, but which had a significant impact—in this case, a primarily electoral one. Triggered by Republican advocacy of the draconian Sensenbrenner Bill, protest marches drew millions of people to the streets in the spring of that year. In a series of national days of action, not only did hundreds of thousands of people march in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Phoenix, but smaller cities and towns such as Fresno, California and Garden City, Kansas witnessed the largest demonstrations ever seen in their localities. The protests drew significant attention in the mainstream press, but this was dwarfed by coverage in the Spanish-language media, which treated the movement as a top story for months. Demonstrations also included actions such as mass student walkouts. However, because the mobilizations died down after a month or two, many now cite the movement as one that “peter[ed] out without achieving meaningful change.”
Many participants and observers alike would have liked to see the movement continue to turn out huge crowds and ultimately compel Washington to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package that would have included measures like the DREAM Act and a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the country. That didn’t happen. But the movement did contribute significantly to one of the more swift and decisive electoral shifts in recent memory.
Those who think the protests made no impact ignore that one of the rallying cries of the immigrant rights mobilizations was, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” While previous anti-immigrant raids had only produced generalized fear and anger, the movement channeled energy in Latino communities in a clearly political—and anti-Republican—direction.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2006, We Are America—a national alliance of more than a dozen labor, faith, and civil rights groups that formed out of the mobilization—ramped up an effort to register new voters and oust anti-immigrant candidates in that year’s midterm elections. In the end, they were not able to raise as much money or register as many voters as they had wanted to. But, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles…and others said the pro-immigrant marches and rallies this year had energized record numbers of immigrants into volunteering for voter outreach and education programs.”
The Immigrant Rights Midterm
In the end, the pro-immigrant mobilization contributed to a disastrous defeat for the Republicans in 2006, as the GOP lost control of both the House and the Senate. Conservative Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer perhaps put it best:
Hispanics said “adiós” to President Bush’s Republican Party in Tuesday’s midterm elections, voting in much greater numbers than expected for Democratic candidates in an apparent rejection of the ruling party’s efforts to blame much of the nation’s problems on undocumented migrants.
Contrary to experts’ predictions that Hispanics would not turn out massively on Tuesday, exit polls show that Hispanics accounted for 8 percent of the total vote. That is about equal to the Hispanic vote’s record turnout in the 2004 presidential election, and much more than its turnout in previous mid-term elections.
What’s more, 73 percent of Hispanics voted for the Democratic Party on Tuesday, while only 26 percent voted for Republican candidates, CNN exit poll shows. In the 2004 presidential elections, 55 percent of Hispanics voted Democrat and about 42 percent voted Republican.
Many experts had predicted that Hispanics would not turn out in big numbers on Tuesday, in part because most of the hottest races took place in states with no major Hispanic presence. Also, experts said that it would take until the 2008 elections for the largely Hispanic “today we march, tomorrow we vote” protests of earlier this year to translate into the naturalization and registration of large numbers of foreign-born Latino voters.
The experts, clearly, were wrong. According to the Houston Chronicle, the Pew Hispanic Center documented “an 11 percent swing of the Latino vote in favor of Democrats when  poll results were compared with those taken two years ago. The 11 percent compares with a 6 percent shift toward Democrats among non-Hispanic whites and a 3 percent change among blacks.”
U.S. News and World Report further noted:
Several vulnerable Republicans, including Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, repeatedly emphasized in their campaigns that they opposed paths to legalization—or “amnesty.” Both lost, as did a collection of Republicans in the House who were among the most vocal members calling for dramatically stepped-up immigration enforcement—Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth and Indiana Rep. John Hostettler.
“If anything, this issue backfired when they attempted to use it to gain a conservative edge,” says pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners. “It helped mobilize voters on the other side.”
Pollsters eyeing the results say the most profound effect of the 2006 election could be shifting voting patterns in the West, where almost a third of the Hispanic population resides. Democrats picked up a governor’s seat in Colorado and a Senate seat in Montana, and they solidly held on to the governorship in Arizona. In the Tucson area, a seat that borders Mexico—held for 22 years by retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe—was captured by a moderate Democrat, former state Sen. Gabrielle Giffords.
Savvy Republicans, who saw the potential of serious long-term harm to their party, scrambled to do damage control. In the summer of 2006, Karl Rove showed up at the national convention of La Raza, the country’s largest Latino civil rights organization, and attempted to distance the White House from the anti-immigrant wing of his party. “The debate has clouded the views of some in America,” he said, “and led them to fail to understand that Hispanics and all immigrants are real Americans.” Later Rove would warn conservatives, “An anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal.”
In 2008 the trend established in the previous election held, and any gains George W. Bush had made in wooing Latinos to the Republican Party in 2000 and 2004 were long gone. As the New Democrat Network, a pro-immigrant advocacy group, reported, “Once again the Hispanic electorate stayed with the Democrats and increased their share of the overall electorate. This emergence of a new, highly energized and pro-Democratic Hispanic electorate had an enormous impact on the 2008 presidential election.”
You Never Win It All at Once
No doubt, the protests of 2006 were only one part of the picture in affecting voting patterns. This is where the “it was inevitable” critics will again pooh-pooh the importance of people participating in organized acts of resistance. However, the record in this case provides a pretty impressive testimonial to the power of mass mobilization: Huge numbers of people took to the streets, their actions captured national attention and dominated the Spanish-language media for months, the protesters vowed to turn out votes against anti-immigrant Republicans, and they ended up delivering to a far greater extent than top electoral analysts had predicted.
Neither the global justice protests of the Seattle period nor the 2006 immigrant rights marches achieved their ultimate goals: the United States has not passed just immigration reform, states like Arizona have since enacted reactionary anti-immigrant measures, and corporate-driven globalization still pushes forward internationally. Moreover, there are always internal debates within movements about how different strategies of grassroots organizing and mass mobilization interact, and about what approaches will be most effective. But the fact that movements do not accomplish everything they want should not detract from their victories. The notion that much work remains to be done is an argument for more protest, mobilization, and organizing, not less. And it is one reason why the emergence of the #Occupy movement is such a welcome development.
This article was reprinted with permission from Dissent Magazine. Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.